The Church in Transition

An event of far-reaching implications for the New Testament Church had occurred about 25 years prior to John's writing. This event was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions under Titus in 70ad. The Jerusalem Church of God, under the leadership of James' successor, Simeon (first cousin of James and Christ), fled Jerusalem shortly before 70ad and went to Pella, a remote desert community. Following Simeon's death, the Jerusalem Church of God experienced great instability, having 13 leaders in the next 28 years.

Many previously promulgated heresies now emerged in full bloom. In addition, many in the Church were discouraged and confused. Events had not gone as had been generally expected. The Church was increasingly becoming a mix of new Gentile converts and second or even third generation members.

During the last part of the first century and the beginning of the second, the Roman world became increasingly hostile to the Jews. Extremely oppressive laws and heavy taxes were directed against them by the Roman Empire as punishment. Between the first (66-73ad) and second (132-135ad) Jewish revolts, there were many violent anti-Jewish pogroms in places such as Alexandria and Antioch. Reacting to this, the Jews rioted in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.

Frequently, Christians suffered as victims of these outbursts because they were regarded by the authorities as a Jewish sect. However, they were considered by Jewish revolutionaries to be traitors to Judaism and to Jewish political aspirations because they would not fight the Romans. During these times, hundreds of thousands of synagogue and church members—those who worshipped on Sabbath days and studied the Scriptures—perished at Roman hands or by mobs.

During this dangerous era, the Roman church under its Bishop Sixtus (ca. 116-126ad) began holding Sunday worship services and ceased observing the annual Passover, substituting Easter Sunday and "Eucharist" in its place. This is the clear record preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea, a late third and early fourth century ad scholar, who became known as the "father of church history." Eusebius quoted his information from a letter of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (ca. 130-202ad) to Bishop Victor of Rome. Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, in his book, From Sabbath to Sunday, acknowledges: "There is a wide consensus of opinion among scholars that Rome is indeed the birthplace of Easter-Sunday. Some, in fact, rightly label it as 'Roman-Easter'" (p. 201). Of course, what is not generally realized by the speakers of non-Latin languages is that the Romans did not use the name "Easter" for their new celebration; they continued to call it by the Latin word for Passover, paschalis.

This official break from the law of God was the natural outgrowth of the "mystery of iniquity," which confused grace with law lessness and taught that obedience to the law was unnecessary. When a practice is not deemed necessary, it is only a matter of time until convenience will dictate either its modification or its abolition. As the conflict between Judaism and the Empire heightened, many "Christians" in Rome, under the leadership of Bishop Sixtus, took steps to avoid any possibility of being considered Jews and thereby suffer persecution with them.

In 135ad, at the end of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) took drastic steps against the Jews. He renamed Jerusalem after himself and the "god" Jupiter Capitolinus—Aelia Capitolina—and imposed the death penalty on anyone called a "Jew" who would dare enter the city.

At this point Marcus, an Italian, became bishop of Jerusalem, as Edward Gibbon records in the fifteenth chapter of his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "At his [Marcus'] persuasion, the most considerable part of the congregation renounced the Mosaic law, in the practice of which they had persevered above a century. By this sacrifice of their habits and prejudices they purchased free admission into the colony of Hadrian, and more firmly cemented their union with the Catholic church" (vol. 1, p. 390).

What of those who continued to regard the law of God as binding for Christians? Gibbon writes: "The crimes of heresy and schism were imputed to the obscure remnant of the Nazarenes which refused to accompany their Latin bishop In a few years after the return of the church of Jerusalem, it became a matter of doubt and controversy whether a man who sincerely acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but who still continued to observe the law of Moses, could possibly hope for salvation" (p. 390).

It was only a matter of time until professing Christians who had ceased observing the Sabbath "excluded their Judaizing brethren from the hope of salvation. [and] declined any intercourse with them in the common offices of friendship, hospitality, and social life."

Incredible! This happened even though, just a few years earlier, they had all observed God's Festivals together. Yet after Bishop Marcus brought in "new truth," most professing Christians joined him in condemning those faithful Christians who held fast to the historic faith that they had all been taught. Those who remained loyal to the truth were soon shunned as a source of "division" by a majority seeking to replace historic Christianity with something different.

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